Though he’s still pretty young, aspiring comedian Charles Ross not long ago learned a simple lesson he should have known all along: that comedy is only about jokes as long as everyone understands what is happening as a joke even if they may not like the joke. And of course, as long as any funnyman involved stays within the boundary lines of the law. Stepping outside the lines drawn by the law can really push things off a cliff and bring unintended consequences for the jokester, including possibly an unexpected visit to the jailhouse. In other words, a bad joke is one thing, but in the real world out there not everything is regarded as a joke – for instance, giving wedgies to total strangers. (For those who may not be familiar with the term, a ‘wedgie’ occurs when someone’s underpants bunch up between the person’s buttocks. Oftentimes, wedgies are pranks associated with schoolyard bullies and most folks don’t think of the wedgie look as ‘cool’.) But first, here’s what happened:
This past January in Bradenton, Florida, 18-year-old Charles Ross, was arrested by the police and charged with battery after one of the visitors at a movie theater in the city reported to the police that Ross had put his hands on him and had given him a wedgie. According to the police report, the 20-year old complainant alleged that Ross had grabbed him “by the back of his pants and pulled them up hard.” The complainant also stated that while Ross was performing the wedgie on him, Ross had asked him if he wanted to hit him and that by Ross’ arrangement, the whole incident was being filmed. Well, just like the complainant himself, the police were in no mood for jokes either, and so Ross was arrested and locked up overnight before being released on bail the next day and given a court date for his battery charge. The police report also indicated that there had been other victims of Ross’ misconduct who did not have the nerve to press charges because they were simply too embarrassed to do so.
It is not surprising that the police found other victims of Ross actions on the day he was arrested because apparently doing these kinds of stuff was simply the way Ross rolled. He was something of a well known gadfly in the area who shocked unsuspecting strangers with various embarrassing pranks, which were then posted on his YouTube site RossCreations . Some of the pranks he had pulled over time and posted on his site are as follows: kissing total strangers to their total shock and embarrassment; faking ‘trust’ falls with strangers by walking up to them, turning his back toward them and challenging them to catch him as he falls backward with his arms stretched sideways; asking strangers to scratch his back; doing handstands over strangers who were bikini-clad women laying on the beach; plumping himself down on the laps of strangers sitting on park benches; dressing as a pink pig, then running up to people and leaping onto their backs; and many more.
Both Ross and the police put different spins on exactly what Ross does on his YouTube site. While Ross prefers to style his actions as “pranks,” the cops see them as Ross merely “creat[ing] situations in order to harass and annoy people.” Regardless of how anyone sees what he does, Ross’ antics have elevated him to a celebrity on the internet. And, as one might predict, given the times we live in, Ross’ celebrity has grown even higher with his current police trouble: shortly the arrest incident, his YouTube channel reportedly received over 50,000 viewers, taking his total count to well over five million viewers.
As it happens, Ross isn’t the only comedian who mixes his comedy with practical jokes. Others do it too, including even veteran comics. Perhaps many will recall the story from 2010 when comedy legend Richard Belzer jokingly put his hand on the shoulders of an Apple Store employee in Midtown Manhattan. Belzer ended up having to explain to the police why his frolic was not enough to get him arrested and charged with harassment. He was able to talk his way out of the mess with help from the store’s video surveillance recording. So, practical jokes can sometimes get real tricky. And this is what makes this case quite a teachable moment for comedians who don’t confine themselves to doing their act onstage and who try to involve strangers in their act without the prior consent of such strangers. The biggest risk here is that those strangers may not share the comedian’s sense of humor and that’s where the trouble breaks out.
Needless to say, when a comedian is performing onstage, he can pretty much say whatever he wants and he can get away with so much stuff without running into trouble with the lawman. But getting into other people spaces without their consent or, worse, actually touching them takes matters way outside the free speech zone and creates a whole different ball game.
Well, speaking of the law, the charge against Ross here is battery. A person commits battery when he deliberately makes a physical contact with somebody else without any lawful justification. For the physical contact to be regarded as ‘battery’ the touching that occurred has to be rather ‘offensive’ in nature. This of course means that the person who made the contact (or did the touching) did not have the permission or ‘consent’ of the other person to touch that other person’s body; the other thing here is that the person who did the touching did not have any lawful excuse for the touching. One can imagine from this explanation that when a cop, for instance, puts his hand on somebody during an arrest, his power of arrest as a cop gives him his lawful excuse to touch folks in that manner and still not be guilty of battery. This also means that doing things like giving a woman an unwanted kiss can be regarded as battery.
So, where does all this leave Ross and his cop case? Well, this one is pretty easy: the lawman got him! With respect to proving battery, this is the easiest case ever, as Ross himself has done the prosecutor’s job for him: he literally filmed himself committing a crime. In doing so, Ross himself might as well have been an investigator working for the DA’s office. Pretty boneheaded thing to do! Luckily for him, it’s only a misdemeanor battery charge but still he will likely get a criminal record.
In a place like New York, Ross might also be hit with a ‘harassment’ charge for his actions. In this case, the prosecutor is required to show that the accused person intentionally harassed, annoyed or alarmed somebody else by striking, kicking, shoving or making some other physical contact with that other person. Usually cases requiring a person to prove exactly what another person intended to do are tough ones to crack because it’s not that easy to read other people’s minds. Yet for a guy like Ross here, this is pretty cold comfort because there is little doubt from his actions that he intended to do all of those things that the law of harassment says should not be done.
Aside from bringing a police case against him, some of the victims of Ross’ pranks could also have opted to just go after him on their own, in civil court. Here, they’ll be looking to hit him in his wallet by seeking damages against him. The most obvious ground on which to seek damages against him would be ‘battery’ which is also a ‘tort’ or civil wrong. And the requirements for winning a battery case in civil court is pretty much the same as what is required in criminal court, as already described above.
And as long as we’re in civil court, the victims of his prank could also decide to sue him for damages for another tort, which is less commonly talked about than the others perhaps because it is generally harder to make the claim stick with this one. Still, the claim is available. This tort is called ‘intentional infliction of emotional distress.’ And this kind of claim can be filed by any person who alleges that the actions of another person toward him are so outrageous and so way out of the ball park that they simply should not be tolerated in a civilized society. Needless to say, because of the requirement of ‘outrageous’ behavior on the part of the offender, petty annoyances or trifling misbehaviors likely won’t make the cut with this kind of claim. And the standards for judging outrageous behavior are the standards of the community where the thing happened. Well, it is fair to say here that most of the kinds of pranks that Ross pulls on his shocked victims would be considered by most folks to be outrageous whether we’re talking about suburban Bradenton, Florida or even Times Square in New York City.
In the end, cases like this one, although pretty silly when one comes to think about it, can only be a lesson to people concerning where the lines are drawn between doing comedy and invading other people’s lawful space. Ross himself reportedly admitted that this ‘ended up not being one of his best jokes.’ Well, actually, it ain’t even a joke at all. It is flat- out law breaking that certainly exposes him to unnecessary liability. To be sure, dumb stuff like this would sooner have him sitting in jail than becoming a superstar on Comedy Central. So, seriously, it’s time to wise up: Knock it off, already!
*******Author’s Note*** My new book “Comedy Under Attack…” is now available on Amazon and in stores. Please post your comments/reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter and more, and join the raging debate. Make yourself heard!